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Kentucky Derby: Mick Ruis risked it all on a dream … and just might win

NEW ALBANY, Ind. — The converted warehouse is on a dead-end street in a sketchy neighborhood. Railroad tracks run nearby, and this place seems to be on the wrong side of those. An auto salvage business is at the end of the narrow street, and past that rises an earthen berm, and past that the Ohio River flows.

Inside this unadorned building is the last place you’d expect to find the owner of a Kentucky Derby horse three days before the race. Yet there stood Mick Ruis on Wednesday evening, sweat trickling down his back and a grin spreading across his face. He is at home.

“I’d rather be here than anywhere else,” says Ruis, owner and trainer of Bolt D’Oro, one of the prime contenders for Saturday’s 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Ruis’ dark eyes sparkle as he watches 25 kids working on wrestling mats. Someone found out that Ruis was an old high school wrestler and decided, what the heck, while he’s in the area let’s invite him to drop by Invicta Wrestling Academy, a blue-collar club that is run by Isaac Knable, a former Indiana University standout. To the surprise of everyone – well, everyone who doesn’t know Ruis – he eagerly accepted.

Across the river, downtown Louisville is rife with the rich and famous. Scions of old money and captains of industry, entertainers and athletes, they’re all pouring in from around the globe to give the city its fleeting annual dose of glamour. Prices for hotel rooms, drinks and Uber rides skyrocket accordingly.

What draws them all here are the 20 3-year-old horses who will contest the most famous horse race in America. The human connections to those 20 horses are the stars of the show, the celebrities of the moment.

Ruis is one of those stars, but he’s not in town for the black-tie parties, not here for the upper-crust cocktail crowd, not here to boost his status among the plutocrats. The 57-year-old has plenty of money, having sold majority interest in his American Scaffold company for $78 million, but watching blue-collar kids toil at the least glamorous of all sports in a stuffy warehouse – this is where his gritty identity is anchored.

“The basketball players get all the glory,” Ruis tells the kids. “The football players get all the glory. You guys get cauliflower ear and ringworm, right? But you love it. I loved it.”

Racing is called the Sport of Kings, and the ownership groups associated with this particular Derby are among the most wealthy and powerful in the world. But sometimes it can also be the sport of commoners who toil their way to the top. It can be the sport of the Mick Ruises of the world, too.

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Mick Ruis celebrates winning the inquiry with jockey Javier Castellano after winning the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park on March 10. (Getty)

Local horseplayers have a knack for infiltrating the Churchill Downs stable area during Derby week to check out the horses up close and hang around the barns. Louisvillian Bill Meyer is one of those guys. His teenage son also is a wrestler. So when Meyer did his homework on the Derby horses and found out that the owner of Bolt D’Oro was an accomplished wrestler in high school, he hatched a plan to invite Ruis to Invicta.

Shortly after the horse walked off the van at Churchill on Monday afternoon, Ruis pulled up to Barn 42 to make sure Bolt’s arrival was uneventful. Assured that it was, the naturally social California native started chatting with the small gathering of people outside. He was approached by Meyer and happily talked wrestling, and in a matter of minutes, the deal was struck for Ruis to make his Invicta visit.

Two days later, he followed through with it. Knable, the Invicta coach, was stunned.

“I’m kind of speechless,” he said shortly after Ruis arrived. “When I heard he was thinking about coming over, I was just so humbled.”

Knable rounded up his high school wrestlers so Ruis could tell them his story, which began in El Cajon, California, near San Diego. Ruis was an 85-pound runt trying out for his high school freshman basketball team when the wrestling coach suggested he try that sport instead. Then the basketball coach suggested it as well. Ruis got the hint and gave it a try.

He was 10 pounds below the 95-pound weight limit for the lightest class, and took a beating. “I had more losses than wins my freshman year,” Ruis told the Invicta kids.

The determination was there, however. Ruis mowed and weeded the yard of a neighbor the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, saving $42 for a set of weights to get stronger. He lifted religiously and became one of the best wrestlers in San Diego County, a star in a sport where it doesn’t take much materially to excel.

Ruis recalled seeing pictures of himself in the paper after winning matches with tape holding his battered wrestling shoes together. He couldn’t afford a new pair, but that never held him back. He went on to win a gold medal at the Junior Pan-American Games in Mexico City.

After the last match of his senior year at El Capitan High, Ruis quit school. The sport had been the only thing that kept him going to class. And while he doesn’t recommend dropping out to anyone, he does cite the lessons learned in grueling combat on the mat in helping him get where he is today.

“It doesn’t matter if you have money, or who you are,” Ruis told the kids. “I felt good about myself. … I got my work ethic from wrestling.”

He transferred that work ethic to entry-level jobs in construction. When that market busted, he moved to Montana as a divorced father with custody of his three kids, talked his way into a loan and bought an apartment complex. Ruis personally fixed it up and sold it for a profit, and along the way to buying another property saw a picture of the owner – a widowed mother of two.

Without meeting her, he called up Wendy Steffy and asked her out. She declined several times, then finally relented to getting together for tea. Three weeks later, they got married. They had two children of their own and now have six grandchildren, and have been married for 23 years.

“Mick is very determined,” Wendy said. “I’ve always had faith in him, because he always accomplishes what he sets out to do.”

Part of what he set out to do was to make it big in business, so he moved the newly blended family back to the San Diego area and went to work in shoring – building scaffolding for ships. He worked his way up and eventually starting his own company, Quality Shoring, “with $3,000 and a fax machine.”

Six years later, Ruis sold the company for $2.5 million. He signed an agreement that included a five-year no-compete clause in the industry.

That became the seed money for a San Diego-area ranch and a nascent thoroughbred racing operation. Ruis had become enchanted by the sport, sometimes journeying south of the Mexican border to check out the races at Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana. His first Kentucky Derby memory was of a $300 to win score on Gato Del Sol in 1982 – a race he learned he won at Agua Caliente only when they circled the horse’s name on a chalkboard outside the betting windows.

But much like his initial foray into wrestling, Ruis would take a beating in racing.

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Mick Ruis, with his wife Wendy, walks around Churchill Downs, where Saturday his horse Bolt D’Oro will make a run for the roses. (Getty)

“I never worked so hard,” Mick Ruis said, “to lose so much money.”

Like many novices diving into thoroughbred racing, Ruis learned quickly and painfully how hard the sport can be. At the highest level, the money can be huge. But at the levels below that, the red ink flows.

Ruis bought 50 horses at bargain prices – none more than $10,000 – and found that the upkeep costs far outstripped the revenues. As in that freshman year of wrestling, there were more losses than wins, and after four years Ruis was $1 million in debt with the IRS coming after his ranch.

Worst of all, he still had a year left on his no-compete clause.

“That was a long year,” Ruis said.

When no-compete finally expired, Ruis dove back into the scaffolding business. He went to work at American Scaffold, at that time one of just six employees, and within a few months earned enough to pull his ranch out of foreclosure. From there, Ruis landed deals around the nation for the company, including one with the U.S. Navy, and eventually bought the company and moved his family back to Montana.

American Scaffold grew to more than 1,200 employees, and has scaffolding on at least 50 ships in five states. Ruis sold 80 percent interest in the business for a fabulous profit. He’s still the CEO and checks in on company business daily, but the sale allowed him his second shot at the racing game that had kicked him to the curb years earlier.

Coming back wiser and with a thicker bankroll, Ruis made more careful thoroughbred purchases. In 2016, he sent assistant Ike Green – a Montana cowboy – to the Saratoga yearling sales with a budget of $450,000. Green wound up spending $630,000 on a colt out of the highly regarded sire Medaglia D’Oro.

Contrary to the odds of it happening, the pair immediately began thinking of Bolt D’Oro as a Derby horse. And even more contrary to getting there, they broke him as a yearling in Montana – Green riding Bolt on trails through the woods, as opposed to the carefully cultivated environments in Kentucky and Florida where most high-end thoroughbreds are reared.

“He got to watch elk and deer running by while he was walking through the pine trees,” Ruis said.

The unconventional approach worked brilliantly – Bolt D’Oro began his racing career last year at age 2 with three impressive victories before finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as the favorite. This year, Bolt was declared the winner of the Grade II San Felipe Stakes after stewards ruled the colt was bumped in the stretch, then finished second to burgeoning monster Justify in the Santa Anita Derby.

Those two performances punched Bolt’s ticket to Louisville for the Derby, where he has been established as the co-third choice at 8-1. Based purely on Beyer Speed Figures, a key metric for comparing horses, only Justify and Mendelssohn have had better performances.

Ruis, eternally confident, believes that his horse is ready to take down those trained by the most accomplished American trainers in the business – Bob Baffert (who has Justify and Solomini in this race), Todd Pletcher (four entrants) and D. Wayne Lukas (long shot Bravazo).

“I thought the Santa Anita outcome was a blessing,” Ruis said. “I like where we’re at now. If our horse was trained by Baffert or Lukas, he’d be 1-9 [odds]. When he’s trained by Mick Ruis, you can get a price.”

Prepared to make a big score at the betting windows, Ruis (presumably) joked that he brought three suitcases of cash with him to Louisville to bet on Bolt D’Oro. The rest of his packing consisted of three new T-shirts and the usual rotation of Levi’s and boots. Ruis is the least likely Derby owner to show up at Churchill Downs Saturday in some $10,000 tailored suit.

He’s only been to one other Derby, as a fan a couple of years ago, and the hustle and bustle of the event wasn’t as much fun as watching it on TV while having a relaxed party back in Montana. He told Wendy, “We’re not coming back until we have a horse in the race.”

That time has arrived faster for Ruis than for many in the game. And with Bolt’s rise has come a plentiful windfall – the colt has earned more than $1 million on the track, and Ruis has sold 50 percent of the breeding rights to billionaire Public Storage founder B. Wayne Hughes.

In a surprising move that Ruis termed a wedding present for the 84-year-old Hughes, Bolt D’Oro will run Saturday in the silks of Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm instead of the green and yellow of Ruis racing.

Ruis said the gesture to Hughes – who has been a major thoroughbred investor and Derby dreamer for years – was an acknowledgement that he has more time left in the sport. And with $2.5 million a year earmarked for thoroughbred purchases, he expects to be in the mix for the foreseeable future.

“He thinks we’re going to be here every year,” Wendy said.

This, once again, might be the triumph of hope over experience. Getting to the Derby is brutally difficult, and the path to Louisville is littered with one-hit-wonder owners and trainers who never got a second shot.

But Ruis is serious about this, relocating his Montana operation to Kentucky. He recently bought Chestnut Farm in Lexington sight unseen, going off the pictures in a brochure – not altogether different than the way he found Wendy via a picture he saw in a house he was trying to buy. The family visited it for the first time this week, and will be spending the night at the farm Thursday and Friday.

It will be an escape from the Derby hoopla, much the way the visit to Invicta Wrestling was Wednesday night.

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Mick Ruis talks to wrestlers at the Invicta Wrestling Academy just a few days before the Kentucky Derby. (Yahoo Sports)

Isaac Knable’s sister had prepared a Kentucky-themed care package for Mick Ruis when he showed up at the warehouse, a KFC bucket filled with local food and drink. She also made a Derby hat for Wendy in Ruis Racing colors, which Mick was all too happy to take out of its box and put on his own head.

“Send a picture of this to Wendy,” he asked a friend, smiling broadly and looking preposterous.

At the end of his talk to the wrestlers, Ruis dropped a surprise on the group: If Bolt D’Oro wins the Derby, he is going to donate $50,000 to the club. If Bolt doesn’t win, he’s still going to donate $10,000. And no matter what happens, he’s going to fund trips for 10 wrestlers to an elite summer camp in Montana.

“The donation and the opportunity to travel, to go to camps, that’s just priceless,” Knable said. “I can’t thank him enough for that opportunity for our kids.”

This was a millionaire Kentucky Derby owner in his earthy element, helping kids get up off the mat, just the way he has more than once in his life. On the other side of the river, the living is large for the thoroughbred racing brahmin. But over here, watching wrestlers toil in a sweaty warehouse, Mick Ruis is right at home.

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